Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Onassis Cultural Center Suddenly Closes Its New York Museum; Future Unknown

Installation view of "Transition to Christianity" at the Onassis Cultural Center.  At left are three of the famous David Plates from Greece.  Also seen are a rare early wood fragment of Christ's face next to three mummy portraits.
New York has lost one of its jewel-box art spaces, at least temporarily.

The Onassis Cultural Center, located in prime real estate in Midtown Manhattan, closed its exhibition space last spring at the end of its stunning show, "Transition to Christianity."

The museum was known -- although not nearly well enough -- for putting on challenging thematic shows with sometimes hard-to-obtain loans from monasteries and museums in Greece and elsewhere.

The official word it that the space is being "renovated," a project that will take one year or two, depending on who is answering the questions.  When a Cultural Center staffer was asked soon after the closing what type of renovations would be done, the staffer declined to be specific.

A restaurant and a snack bar in the building's atrium are also closed for renovation.

A sculpture from the Center's last show
The gallery was below ground level in the Olympic Tower -- a building developed in 1975 by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis -- when it last welcomed visitors.  It first opened in 2000, and the Cultural Center has used it rent-free under a lease that expires in June 2014 -- the building's owner, Olympic Tower Associates, and the Cultural Center are related entities.

Shortly before the space closed, Olympic Tower Associates sold a 49.9% stake in the building to Crown Acquisitions, reportedly to tap Crown's expertise in increasing the value of retail space.

Is the timing just a coincidence, or will the gallery be turned into some money-making commercial operation?

The seller, the buyer, the broker, the building manager, the Cultural Center's president, and the gallery director either refused to respond to inquiries or said they didn't know the answer to questions raised about the gallery's future.

The gallery, L-shaped with two sides facing an interior courtyard, was small in size but big in impact.  A recent exhibition tracing the roots of El Greco's art persuasively emphasized his ties to Greek and Byzantine art traditions.  It was a revelation.

Its last show was a sensitive exhibition of Christian and pagan religions coexisting and in conflict in late antiquity, provocatively examining such ideas as the defacing of ancient Greek statuary with Christian symbols and the Christian adoption of pagan motifs.

The loss of the Cultural Center's exhibitions, even temporarily, will leave a huge hole in the city's cultural fabric.

Images are from the Onassis Cultural Center website.
Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.